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“A Pacific Ocean For The Entire World”—The Panama Canal and Its Nikkei Ties to the Pacific Northwest

Drafting Force Division Engineering Office of Atlantic (Akira is in the middle). Photo by Akira Aoyama.

“The little package of questions for which your parents don’t have answers,” says Mizu Sugimura, “they will give to you.”

Sugimura is a visual artist and writer from Fife, Washington. She came of age in the 1970s, graduating from the University of Washington and going on to volunteer with the Asian Pacific Women’s Caucus and the redress campaign. Though many members on both sides of her Japanese American family were incarcerated during World War II, they never discussed their experience. Camp had unalterably shattered their sense of selves as Americans, which led to unanswered questions about their pride, heritage, and place in American society. Back in the late 1970s, Mizu had entered an essay contest in Seattle on “What The Bicentennial Means to Me as a Japanese American.” She lost, but was encouraged to attend the awards banquet anyway. She attended the banquet and was impressed by the quality of the letters who had won the awards. However, one of the judges, a college professor, reached out to her later on with a personal mailed letter praising her essay, and encouraging her to continue writing.

Mizu still has that letter. She kept it through the years that she volunteered with the redress campaign in Seattle, with the years as a Federal Way Arts Commissioner, and now with her volunteer work as a board member of the Fife History Museum and other organizations.

“It’s easy to criticize,” she says now. “But our community is intertwined,” she continues. “What we do at one level can affect everyone. If I can write maybe five letters like that, “she says, “if I can support someone, encourage them to keep going and make a difference, that would be something to be proud of.”

Sugimura was born after her family members left camp, but she sought answers. She was looking for representation in history, in social issues, in the media, which represented people like her. “I was struggling with issues with my identity,” she says. In her quest to look deeper into her family history, “someone to be proud of,” she found Akira Aoyama.

Akira Aoyama is Sugimura’s grand-uncle on her father’s side, a civil engineer who grew up in Shizuoka-ken, Japan at the turn of the 19th-20th centuries. He graduated from Imperial University and traveled to the United States. In 1903 Aoyama left Yokohama and came to my hometown of Tacoma, Washington, coming through its Port on the Ryojin-Maru steamship.

Sugimura has spent time patiently reconstructing part of his history as well as its connections to the Northwest. (While spending some time in Tacoma, he worked a few odd jobs, and I look forward to spending some time trying to research more about his time in Tacoma.)

From Tacoma, he joined Professor William Burr of Columbia University in New York as a member of the Isthmian Canal Commission (a commission appointed by President Theodore Roosevelt). While waiting for his travel to Panama, Professor Burr helped him to find unpaid work for a New York railway company for 3 months.

In Panama, Aoyama worked on the Canal, working his way up quickly through the ranks. After beginning as a rodman for a year, he was promoted to Assistant Surveyor, Design Engineer, and then Deputy Chief Engineer at the Gatun Locks Atlantic Division of the Canal. He was the only Japanese civil engineer on the project. According to the Japanese Society for Civil Engineers International Activities Center USA Group, he risked contracting yellow fever, and contracted malaria twice during his survey work in Panama.

Aoyama was in Panama from 1904 to 1911. He resigned from the Commission in 1911 and returned to Japan. There he applied the principles he had learned from the Canal project in his home country. In 1935, he was elected the 23rd President of the Japan Society of Civil Engineers. He was devoutly Christian, and it’s thought that his ideals formed the basis for the code of ethics that he created for Japan’s Society of Civil Engineers. The code is thought to be the first such code among Japanese engineering associations.

“Civil engineers shall: 1. Contribute to the peace and prosperity of the nation and the welfare of humanity. 2. Endeavour towards the development of technology, and contribute by means of their wisdom and skills, to society. 3. Have a sense of honor, integrity, modesty, and cultivate and nurture.”

Aoyama found a position as an engineer with Japan’s Ministry of the Interior. He is known particularly for helping to control the flow of the Arakawa River; its flooding had repeatedly devastated Tokyo for years.

In 1943, the Imperial Japanese Navy—knowing about Aoyama’s experience with the Canal—asked him how to destroy the canal locks. Aoyama reportedly replied, “I know how to build the Panama Canal, but I don’t know how to destroy it.” It’s thought that his history of working with the United States derailed his career in Japan when pro-war sentiments arose. He stopped working for the Ministry in 1936, but did not pass away until 1963 at the age of 84.

Today, Aoyama’s accomplishments have reached wider audiences through a biography published in Japanese and English, two children’s books, a museum exhibit, and a documentary. In 2018, the Arakawa Museum of Aqua in Tokyo had an exhibit honoring Aoyama’s contributions to the Panama Canal on its 100th anniversary of construction, including his sketches and photographs during the Canal project and his projects in Japan. Panama’s ambassador to Japan, H.E. Ritter Díaz, visited the exhibit and placed a flower arrangement there in Aoyama’s memory. Aoyama’s archives are also in Japan.

Though Aoyama’s story is moving for so many reasons, I am especially moved by his ties to the Pacific Northwest and his vision of a Pacific Ocean connection. According to Albert Yeung of the University of Hong Kong, Aoyama believed that "the Pacific Ocean would really become the Pacific Ocean for the entire world." Aoyama’s history not only involves Washington State, but also New York, Japan, and Panama. “It is particularly uplifting for [me]...,” wrote Sugimura in a 2008 blog post, “because my granduncle Akira Aoyama, by virtue of his solitary individual contribution to Professor Burr’s team and unpopular, [his] alien citizenship did not merit outside his immediate family until recent years the most brief footnote.” Aoyama believed in the power of connection, just as his American-born relative here does. These connections work along the same lines of the Discover Nikkei project itself: connecting Nikkei around the world.

Sources:

1. Dr. Masahiko Isobe, “A Century of Japanese Civil Engineering and Future Disaster Mitigation.” JSCE 100th Anniversary Celebration, November 20, 2014

2. Mizu Sugimura “A Few Facts About Akira Aoyama”, In Your Neighborhood. March 3, 2008

Akira Aoyama’s Achievements on Panama Canal Project” JSCE International Activities Center USA Group. Proceedings of the ASCE Global Engineering Conference, 2014

4. Albert Yeung, “Message from the ChairmanACECC Outlook (Newsletter of the Asian Civil Engineering Coordinating Council), October 20, 2014.

 

© 2019 Tamiko Nimura

Akira Aoyama camp identity incarceration japanese american pacific northwest panama canal redress World War II